Six-year-old Menwar Al Bakri is adorable. With big brown eyes and a fresh, eager attitude, he reveals his world, a world that, for four months in 2016, revolved around sleeping in a tent in an abandoned gas station in Greece.
Menwar’s family left their home in Aleppo, Syria, afraid they would be killed in the civil war that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths since 2011. They ended up in an illegal refugee camp in Northern Greece, along with dozens of other people, cooking on makeshift stoves and scrounging for food and water. Menwar plays soccer on the concrete, in between the tents and the adults who sit outside, waiting for whatever will happen next.
That is the big question. The Al Bakri family hoped to go to Germany to be reunited with their two teenage sons. But they are stuck in a no-man’s land of inhospitable bureaucracy.
This experience is expressed through Menwar’s eyes and words in “Unwelcome,” a short documentary by director Ida Theresa Myklebost, who coproduced the film with Jasmine El-Gamal. Myklebost, a Norwegian journalist and filmmaker, recently visited Seattle for the Seattle International Film Festival, where she was thrilled to share Menwar’s story at the largest and most highly attended film festival in the United States.
After covering the Syrian refugee crises for years, Myklebost felt a need to get closer to the stories, to the individual people who were living through these traumatic events.
A visit to the gas station in Greece led her to the Al Bakri family and to 6-year-old Menwar. It was immediately clear that he should be the focus of the film. His young voice narrates the film, along with snippets from his older sister, Sajida, and their mother, Amina.
Menwar’s commentary is direct and often heartbreaking. He remembers life in Syria, where he “used to play a lot.” Then he says, as a simple matter of fact, “We just wanted to get away from the war.” He recounts how his family crossed from Turkey to Greece in a smuggler’s boat that filled up with water.
Myklebost supports his story with footage she captured of other refugees crossing the Aegean Sea at night. After months of negotiation, Myklebost and El-Gamal were granted permission to ride along with a patrol boat. The borders had recently been closed, in March 2016, stemming the flow of refugees, but desperate people still attempt the crossing. When the patrol boat shines a light into a small boat, filled with a family and other refugees, the camera reveals their terror, but also wary relief as they are helped to shore.
But the film is also slow, at times, immersing viewers in the limbo existence of being a refugee.
“As a journalist, I’d covered the refugee crisis for a while, read the reports, knew the statistics, but when I came to the camp, the thing that struck me was the silence, the waiting game, the frustration of wanting to start life, but being stuck in a tent in a gas station,” Myklebost said. “All the doors are being closed around you and you are struggling to get breakfast. This is the new tragedy. The first tragedy is the war in Syria, which is bombs and blood and ruins. The second tragedy is being a refugee.”
Myklebost creates a sense of intimacy with low camera angles and close-up shots of refugees’ daily lives: dishes in a makeshift outdoor sink, Menwar’s favorite Superman sneakers, an early morning scene where Menwar’s baby brother crawls out from their tent.
But tension builds. Rumors spread that everyone will be forcibly moved to an official refugee camp, one with a terrible reputation for violence and poor sanitation. Menwar’s mother insists that they want to proceed legally, but she notices as her neighbors begin to pay smugglers to take them across the border to Macedonia.
We witness the fear in Menwar’s eyes as police surround the camp and as his family rushes to pack their few belongings. Menwar shoves his beloved soccer ball into a bag.
The Al Bakri family is still in limbo, having moved at least twice since the film was shot. But Myklebost chose not to pan out, so to speak, to follow the family from camp to camp. The film ends with a close-up on Menwar’s Superman sneaker that was forgotten in the shuffle. By keeping a tight focus on one child and one chapter in the life of his family, viewers can glean wider lessons about the treatment of refugees.
“In the beginning, I wanted people to help,” Myklebost said. But at this point, particularly with so much fatigue about the situation and the way the rhetoric is becoming so negative, I want people to stop and rethink who they’re talking about. We’re not talking about terrorists here. We’re talking about 6-year-old kids. I hope that people at home, sitting around talking about this crisis, I hope they remember Menwar.”
For more information on “Unwelcome,” including upcoming screenings, visit the film's Facebook page.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full August 2 issue.
Real Change is reader supported. Just $5 a month provides work for more than 300 active vendors and keeps community journalism strong.